Moral (Morals), Moralists

Carole Dornier

1La morale, defined in Montesquieu’s time as “moral doctrine” (doctrine des mœurs), science or knowledge of human behaviors in relation to good and evil, is composed of generalizations that can be expressed in the form of rules, principles and maxims. It thus refers to a judgmental perspective and possibly of prescription. From a designation of the practice of virtues and a culture of will, there was a change during the 17th century to the reference to an attitude of observation, which sometimes conflated morality and psychology. The term “moralist” in the same period came to designate a writer who dealt with mores, in a non-prescriptive attitude, but developing a critical reflection on types of lives and manners of being. A current rejecting dogmatism, marked by a return to antique forms of wisdom, through innovative writing taking hold against the traditional genres, in the exercise of thought that is deployed in fragmentary, discontinuous modes and essays, groups the names of Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, La Bruyère. Corrado Rosso has proposed a reading of the whole of Montesquieu’s work in the light of a moralist’s purpose, the word designating both the ethical dimension of thought and a style marked by the stylistic patterns inherited from this movement. With the Persian Letters, Montesquieu takes his place in the line of moralists, critical observers of society and stylists giving form to the renewal of vision on mores and to a thought in action that does not allow itself to be held by pre-established patterns of a composition imposed by the choice of a genre. In the manner of La Bruyère’s Characters, Montesquieu adopts a purely extrinsic order, which permitted him to “join philosophy, politics and morality to a novel” (“joindre de la philosophie, de la politique et de la morale à un roman”, LP, “[‣] ”, 1758). From the moralist he takes the procedures that mix the picturesque and the typological, a movement caught in description, in a subtle alliance of individual observation and generalization. The portrait of Parisian society opens onto a gallery of portraits: the alchemical madman, financier, director of consciences, poet, old officer, man of the world, old coquettes, witty fops, gamblers… The “decision maker” (LP, [‣]) has been compared to Arrias in the Characters (V, 9). Montesquieu would however later mark his distance with respect to a certain moralism that could lend itself to reproach for malevolent ad hominem attacks, when description comes at the expense of generalization and universalist perspective: “A good man who does Characters like La Bruyère must always do paintings and not portraits; paint men and not a man” (“Un honnête homme qui fait des Caractères comme La Bruyère, doit toujours faire des tableaux, et non pas des portraits ; peindre des hommes et non pas un homme”, Pensées, no. 996).

2But as in La Bruyère, the satire in the Persian Letters does not stop at human vices and foibles. It aims at social functions or certain institutions and usages. The model of the Asian observer, in the style of Dufresny’s Amusements sérieux et comiques and Marana’s Turkish Spy is comparable to the vogue of the periodical essay, using the fictional letter and the fictional narrator-observer, as in the Steele and Addison Spectator, the formula of which Marivaux partly borrows in his Le Spectateur français. He practices a rhapsodic kind of writing that mixes chronicle, moral reflection and fiction, privileging a renewed look at society. This model modified the moralist perspective which was defined with relation to the maxim and the “character” and to an atemporal and universal conception of man. The pessimism of the moralists of the 17th century could be read as an invitation by the believer to turn away from a corrupt world and turn toward eternal truths. The confusion of being and seeming and the upheaval of natural hierarchies were perceived, in the moralities of Augustinian inspiration and in baroque thought, as the manifestation of the corruption of the human heart and of concupiscence. The logic of appearance is the object, in the Persian Letters, of a critique relativizing court society and worldly culture. Duplicity and dissimulation, fallacious language of politeness and gallantry, systematic use of falsehood and artifice, the power of ridicule, all belong to a French sort of sociability, deemed as perverted. Life in the Oriental seraglio offers another version of a sociability degraded into dissimulation, as a means of resistance of women against the abuses of despotic power, thus underscoring the link between the excesses of power and moral depravity. The author alludes to a present situation and suggests political and religious responsibilities. False wonders and false money do not stem from an atemporal falsity, because inherent in man as a fallen creature, but from a form of exercise of power, an abusive utilization, historically identifiable, in particular through the collapse of Law’s System, of credit, loans, values in general. Montesquieu postulates, in the form of the apologue of the Troglodytes and its theoretical pendant constituted by letter 81, a requisite moral order that depends on notions of virtue and justice, on the basis of which human acts can be morally evaluated: “Justice is a relation of propriety, that really exists between two things; […] justice is eternal and does not depend on human conventions; and if it did, that would be a terrible truth, which we would have to hide from ourselves” (“La justice est un rapport de convenance, qui se trouve réellement entre deux choses ; […] la justice est éternelle, et ne dépend point des conventions humaines ; et, quand elle en dépendrait, ce serait une vérité terrible, qu’il faudrait se dérober à soi-même”, LP, [‣]). The evocation of a golden age, and the recourse to the story of the Troglodytes, inspired by Fénelon’s Betica, elicit a form of moral discourse, enunciating the ideal in order to judge the present and sketch the conditions of good sociability through the intermediary of fiction.

3The Éloge de la sincérité [‘In praise of sincerity’], an opuscule written about 1717, developing a critique of dissimulation and flattery, ends with an exhortation to return to the Edenic happiness of the reign of sincerity: “It will bring back the golden age and the time of innocence, while falsehood and artifice will go back into Pandora’s box” (“Elle ramènera l’âge d’or et le siècle de l’innocence, tandis que le mensonge et l’artifice rentreront dans la boîte funeste de Pandore”, OC, VIII, p. 145). At the beginning of this academic essay, Montesquieu criticizes the Stoic illusion of knowing oneself because men “perceive their virtues and vices only through self-love” (“n’aperçoivent leurs vertus et leurs vices qu’au travers de l’amour-propre”). But aside from this observation, he does not abandon hope of formulating the conditions of morality: tell others the truth, hear it from them: “[…] those were indeed wise who, knowing how far men naturally are from truth, made all their wisdom consist in telling it to them” (“[…] ceux-là étaient bien plus sages qui, connaissant combien les hommes sont naturellement éloignés de la vérité, faisaient consister toute la sagesse à la leur dire”, ibid., p. 137). Thus the initial critique of the Delphic precept leaves room for a revisited Stoicism that is a roundabout way of realizing that precept and practicing a sociability that leads to wisdom.

4Another academic essay, presented in 1725, De la considération et de la réputation, first published with the works of Mme de Lambert, develops a moral question that was debated in a period of renewed questioning of the aristocratic ethic, based on the quest for glory and prestige, to which was now opposed the equivocal notion of merit. Montesquieu, uttering the commonplace of a consideration that must be solidly established on virtue, mixes psychological analysis and prescriptive maxims aspiring to moral advice. These two essays show Montesquieu’s interest for the questions and genres of the moral tradition. In parallel with satirical fiction and discontinuity, with a certain rejection of the apparent order of programmatic composition, Montesquieu practiced an injunctive and prescriptive kind of writing, in the tradition of the moral treatise, borrowed from Antiquity, perhaps under the influence of Mme de Lambert.

5During the same years, he had planned to write, in the manner of Cicero’s De officiis, a Traité des devoirs (‘Treatise on duty’, OC, VIII, p. 437-439) which he mentions in 1750 in his correspondence, evoking his admiration for the Stoics, who developed a practical morality, that of “admirable princes” like Marcus Aurelius (OC, VIII, ibid., p. 438). He also refers to it by the title “Moral thoughts” (Pensées, no. 220-224). In it, according to the table of contents, he refuted the fatalism of the Spinozists, affirmed the existence and goodness of God, and then defined the duties of men towards others and took up the question of justice, independent of human laws and based on the existence and sociability of reasonable beings, dealt with the idea of the hierarchy of duties. The last chapters, criticizing a conception of politics as the art of scheming and manipulation, found in the form of an isolated opuscule, De la politique (OC, T. VIII, p. 511-522 et l’édition en ligne, C. Volpilhac-Auger éd., MBE, 2021 [[‣]]), already evoked the obstacles of social determinations to the will of the governors. In the treatise we already find the conception of a transcendent notion of justice as formerly stated in the Persian Letters. The firm praise of the Stoics and the influence of Cicero, already celebrated in a Discours sur Cicéron (OC, T. VIII, p. 125-132), translate the concern to rehabilitate moral philosophy. The Stoic reference makes it possible to state the conditions for moral behavior in a corrupt world. The theoretical adversaries targeted are Hobbes and Spinoza but also the Machiavellian conception of politics. The treatise takes inspiration from Cicero, from Malebranche’s Traité de morale, from Samuel Clarke in his critique of Spinozism, from Pufendorf’s short work De officio hominis et civis [‘On the duty of man and citizen’] translated by Barbeyrac. Invoking the Stoic conception of sociability as the foundation of natural law, Montesquieu nevertheless distinguishes himself from the jusnaturalists. He contradicts in particular Pufendorf with his refusal to make reference to a will, human or divine, as a component of the law that would justify the Hobbesian theses: “The author, in chapters 4 and 5, shows that justice does not depend on human laws, that it is based on the existence and sociability of reasonable beings, and not on those beings’ individual dispositions or wills” (“L’auteur, dans les chapitres 4 et 5, fait voir que la justice n’est pas dépendante des lois humaines, qu’elle est fondée sur l’existence et sur la sociabilité des êtres raisonnables, et non pas sur des dispositions ou volontés particulières de ces êtres”, OC, T. VIII, p. 437-438). A part of this treatise reappears by Montesquieu’s own admissioin in the praise of the Stoics of book XXIV of L’Esprit des lois, on the relationship of laws with religion (ch. 10).

6The Histoire véritable, written between 1734 and 1739 and corrected toward the end of Montesquieu’s life, marks a return, after the Persian Letters, to fiction as a vehicle for moral satire. The different reincarnations of the protagonist-narrator allow observation of the vices and weaknesses of humanity, exposure of corruption and wickedness. The work includes satirical portraits and moral reflections. But unlike other works making use of a similar process of narrative unity, like Lesage’s Le Diable boiteux, Montesquieu’s takes the path of the philosophical tale inviting the reader to a meditation on the conditions of virtue and happiness, like that which it places in the mouth of the genie Plutus, god of wealth (OC, t. IX, p. 179). Certain observations foreshadow the theme of the corruption of nations by prosperity. The theme of the hierarchy of duties (Pensées, no. 741) is also formulated for the first time in this tale: “If I had known something that was useful to me and would be detrimental to my family, I would cast it out of my mind; if I had known something useful to my family, but that would not have been to my country, I would have tried to forget it. If I had known something that was useful to my country, and detrimental to Europe, or useful to Europe and detrimental to humankind, I would have considered it a crime” (“Si j’avais su quelque chose qui m’eût été utile et qui eût été préjudiciable à ma famille je l’aurais rejeté de mon esprit, si j’avais su quelque chose utile à ma famille et qui ne l’eût pas été à ma patrie j’aurais cherché à l’oublier. Si j’avais su quelque chose utile à ma patrie et qui eût été préjudiciable à l’Europe ou bien qui eût été utile à l’Europe et préjudiciable au genre humain je l’aurais regardé comme un crime”, OC, t. IX, p. 186).

7One also observes in Montesquieu the disappearance of specifically moral preoccupation in favor of an attempt at historico-political understanding of the Europe of his time, which involves a comparison of conditions of freedom and political power among the ancients and moderns (Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne, Romains, Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle). Moreover, the place occupied by economic reflection allows him to account for the influence on his thought of the reversal of Augustinian pessimism brought about, beginning with the moralists, by a current of rehabilitation of the passions and self-love, linked to the development of political economy. The influence of Mandeville and the current of rational egoism, the category of the totality of social facts, the determinism of physical and moral causes, seem to place L’Esprit des lois on the side of an anomic relativism excluding a judgmental attitude and the ambition of defining foundations and values. The analysis of modern monarchies that stresses the role played by luxury, favoring trade, the condition of general prosperity and agreeable mores, and by the quest of glory as artifice to obtain the sacrifice of individual interests in the service of the state, is due in part to the influence of the Fable of the Bees. According to the typology of governments in L’Esprit des lois, the strength of monarchical government with respect to democracies lies precisely in the fact that it requires little in the way of morality: “In monarchies, the political accomplishes great things with as little virtue as it can, as in the most elegant machines art employs as few movements, forces and wheels as possible”

8(“Dans les monarchies, la politique fait faire les grandes choses avec le moins de vertu qu’elle peut ; comme dans les plus belles machines, l’art emploie aussi peu de mouvements, de forces et de roues qu’il est possible”, EL, III, 5). Taking from Mandeville the idea that private vices make for public virtues, that honor and glory are necessary fictions for the public interest, Montesquieu makes of false honor the principle of monarchical government: “Honor makes all the parts of the body politic move; it binds them by its very action; and it happens that everyone tends to serve the common good, thinking they are serving their own interests. It is true that, philosophically speaking, it is a false honor that drives all the parts of the state: but this false honor is as useful to the public as true honor would be to individuals who might possess it” (“L’honneur fait mouvoir toutes les parties du corps politique ; il les lie par son action même, et il se trouve que chacun va au bien commun, croyant aller à ses intérêts particuliers. Il est vrai que, philosophiquement parlant, c’est un honneur faux qui conduit toutes les parties de l’État : mais cet honneur faux est aussi utile au public, que le vrai le serait aux particuliers qui pourraient l’avoir”, EL, III, 7). Similarly, in book XIX on mores, Montesquieu stresses that what is morally condemnable may be socially useful: “[…] all political vices are not moral vices and […] all moral vices are not political vices” (“[…] tous les vices politiques ne sont pas des vices moraux, et […] tous les vices moraux ne sont pas des vices politiques”, XIX, 11). Yet the moral condemnations of the Inquisition, of slavery, of torture in particular, are not wanting in a work defined by the author himself and paradoxically as a “moral treatise” (traité de morale, Pensées, no. 1865). The judgment and the precept can be established only on certain knowledge. Just as one cannot invite to solve a problem of geometry the “man who does not know the first propositions of Euclid” (Pensées, no. 1864), Montesquieu deplores the fact that science has neglected the question of the ends of knowledge: “We have accorded such high esteem in this century to physical knowledge that we have retained only indifference for the moral ones. Since the Greeks and Romans, moral good and evil have become a sentiment rather than an object of knowledge” (“On a, dans notre siècle, donné un tel degré d’estime aux connaissances physiques que l’on n’a conservé que de l’indifférence pour les morales. Depuis les Grecs et les Romains, le bien et le mal moral sont devenus un sentiment plutôt qu’un objet de connaissances”, Pensées, no. 1871). Thus torture can correspond to a certain rationality of the despotic government, a proof that rationality cannot be considered as the moral source, whence recourse to nature and justice, the “voice” (EL, VI, 17) of which can long cry out without being heard. One could think that “human nature would arise endlessly against despotic government” (“la nature humaine se soulèverait sans cesse contre le gouvernement despotique”) but moderation is a “masterpiece of legislation”, whereas despotism needs only “passions to establish itself” (EL, V, 14). To expose the coherence of a social and political function does not for that suspend the moral judgment, as is shown by the depiction of corruption of the court in monarchies: “the aversion to truth, flattery, betrayal, perfidy, abandonment of all engagements, scorn of a citizen’s duties, fear of the prince’s virtue […], the perpetual ridicule cast on virtue, form, I believe, the character of a large number of courtiers” (“[…] l’aversion pour la vérité, la flatterie, la trahison, la perfidie, l’abandon de tous ses engagements, le mépris des devoirs du citoyen, la crainte de la vertu du prince […], le ridicule perpétuel jeté sur la vertu, forment, je crois, le caractère du plus grand nombre des courtisans […]”, EL, III, 5). If Montesquieu distinguishes, in the republic, between political and moral virtue (EL, Avertissement, 1757-1758), it is none the less the case that the principle of democracy and morality of the citizens are interdependent: “Love of country leads to the goodness of mores, and goodness of mores leads to love of country” (“L’amour de la patrie conduit à la bonté des mœurs, et la bonté des mœurs mène à l’amour de la patrie”, EL, V, 2). Whether the question is the honor of monarchies or the virtue of republics, the principle of these two natures of government requires an education, the acquisition of interiorized rules based on a system of values, therefore a morality.

9Despotism, a political state so easy to establish since it is the natural slope on which a government slides when it corrupts itself by alteration of its principle, is on the contrary amoral, a form of foil on the basis of which moderation, by opposition, is defined. It is the “political good” which, “like the moral good, is always found between two limits” (“comme le bien moral, se trouve toujours entre deux limites”, EL, XXIX, 1). Facility, sloth, naturalness of corruption are the allies of despotism, the form of political evil. Moderation, which could well be that assignable end for moral and political knowledge, requires mores as modes of constraint all the more effective that they are not perceived as constraints.

10If morality is auxiliary to moderation to prevent the corruption of the principle of moderate governments and the abandonment to passions that engenders despotism, it is more easily acquired by an equilibrium of passions than by virtuous exhortations. Thus trade, based on the passion to acquire wealth, tempers violence by the concern for self-interest: “[…] it is fortunate for men to be in a situation where, while their passions inspire in them the thought of being wicked, they however have an interest in not being so” (“[…] il est heureux pour les hommes d’être dans une situation où, pendant que leurs passions leur inspirent la pensée d’être méchants, ils ont pourtant intérêt de ne pas l’être”, EL, XXI, 16 [20]). This morality is thus not obtained by a series of injunctions rationally based on the idea of justice. It moreover can hardly do without religion, which, “even false, is the best guarantor that men can have for men’s probity” (“même fausse, est le meilleur garant que les hommes puissent avoir de la probité des hommes”, XXIV, 8). Montesquieu refutes Bayle’s “paradox” that it is better to be an atheist than an idolater. Religion halts the prince’s passions as well as the people’s since it is “the only restraint that those who do not fear human laws can have” (“le seul frein que ceux qui ne craignent point les lois humaines puissent avoir”, XXIV, 2). By rendering homage, with respect to the relationship between morality and religion, to the “Stoic sect”, Montesquieu finds in the Stoic conception of a natural religion, immanent in society, the foundation of a practice of virtue working for the happiness of men in society (XXIV, 10). Montesquieu’s moral preoccupations are not dissociable, as they are for many contemporary moralists, from the quest for happiness. Montesquieu sought to combine the determinist explanation of social particularities with a reflection on the conditions of moral and philosophical judgment, as he wished to articulate the universalism of natural law with the relativist conscience of cultural particularisms. The difficulty of this combination requires a form of communication that excludes the systematic exposé and method. The reproaches made to L’Esprit des lois on its disorder, where the rigor of an ordered treatise was expected, on its sallies and its wit, underscore what the work’s writing owes to the art of suggestion claimed by the moralists, in a refusal of the doctrinary exposé and a composition that hems in and bridles the author’s thought like that of his reader: “The idea is not to make one read, but to make one think” (“Il ne s’agit pas de faire lire, mais de faire penser”, XI, 20). From the classical maxim Montesquieu borrows the antithesis based on parallelism, the striking if not peremptory shortcut, the ellipse of intermediary ideas, in an enlightening surge that still maintains a portion of obscurity from which the reflection restarts: “Men are all equal in a republican government; they are equal in a despotic government; in the first, it is because they are everything; in the second, because they are nothing” (“Les hommes sont tous égaux dans le gouvernement républicain ; ils sont égaux dans le gouvernement despotique ; dans le premier, c’est parce qu’ils sont tout ; dans le second, c’est parce qu’ils ne sont rien”, VI, 2). This style of clear obscurity and the lapidary fragment is perceived in elliptical formulas, on a staccato rhythm. About the Arabs, Montesquieu writes: “Elius Gallus had found them to be traders; Mohammed found them to be warriors: he gave them enthusiasm, and then they were conquerors” (“Elius Gallus les avait trouvés commerçants : Mahomet les trouva guerriers ; il leur donna de l’enthousiasme, et les voilà conquérants”, XXI, 12 [16]). Besides concision, he also practiced digression, the progression “by leaps and bounds” dear to Montaigne, perceptible in the breaks in progression of the exposé, in the marks of enunciation that signal the author’s presence: “I make haste, I am taking big steps” (III, 6); “Let us discuss this unhurriedly” (X, 13); “I think I am holding the end of the thread, and can walk” (XXX, 2). This art of discontinuity and this rhetoric of suggestion supposes a refusal of uniformity, clearly affirmed in the praise of variety and surprise in the Essay on taste, which is also a condemnation of geometric imperialism, the political pendant of which is despotism.

11We can put into parallel this refusal of uniformity and the writing of the Pensées. This three-volume collection, composed of two thousand fragments, recorded between 1726-1727 and the author’s death, is a central text, composed of “reflections or isolated thoughts I have not put into my works” (“réflexions ou pensées détachées qu[’il n’a] pas mis[es] dans [ses] ouvrages”, Pensées, no. 1). Montesquieu defines the ascetic function of the collection: “These are ideas I have not developed, and which I keep to think about when the occasion permits. […] Most of what I have placed here I have not had time to reflect on, and will think about them when I make use of it” (“Ce sont des idées que je n’ai point approfondies, et que je garde pour y penser dans l’occasion. […] Je n’ai mis là la plupart que je n’ai pas eu le temps de les réfléchir, et j’y penserai quand j’en ferai usage”, ibid., no. 2 et 3). What we see sketched here is a use of the fragment very different from the oracular maxim of La Rochefoucauld. A discourse without authority, for private use, the fragment fixes the spontaneity of a thought or a formula that needs to be reworked in confrontation with a context and the imperatives of a programmed composition, or which Montesquieu preserves in his collection, both a reservoir and a palimpsest, making no other use of it. The Pensées testify to the fact that the same reflection is used in different discursive contexts, which underscores the relative semantic autonomy which is conferred on it, but also, by the play of modifications, corrections and suppressions, to the concern for adapting the idea in function of a line of argumentative development that imposes a revision. Far from the chiseled fixity of the classical sentence, the thought translates an ethics of communication that distinguishes preparatory writing from the publishable work, which tries out, modifies and accumulates points of view, in particular in the relation of the general notion to the example, the utterance to its context.

12Thus certain examples and certain themes stand out, privileged objects of moral reflection which, without having provided the matter for developed texts, appear in recurrent fashion in the published works. Their interest is emphasized by the mention of a project for a work of which the fragments are set down in the Pensées. Montesquieu thought of making “a judgment on the history” of the conquest of Mexico by Solis (ibid., no. 796). That conquest, evoked several times in his work (LP, [‣] ; EL, X, 4 ; XV, 4), the treatment of which was probably previewed in chapter 22 of the Traité des devoirs (Pensées, no. 1265, 1268), will be the occasion to revisit in complex and nuanced manner the question of the Spanish crimes already denounced by Montaigne. Contrary to the latter, who judges them in the light of his own values, Montesquieu does not idealize the victims of these exactions but tries to understand the specificities of their civilization that favored their defeat: superstition and despotism. But he unequivocally condemns the horrors perpetrated by the conquerors, which had been explained by the concern to preserve those conquests. “[…] crime loses nothing of its blackness by the usefulness derived from it. It is true that one always judges actions by their success; but this judgment of men is itself a deplorable abuse in morality” (“[…] le crime ne perd rien de sa noirceur par l’utilité qu’on en retire. Il est vrai qu’on juge toujours des actions par le succès ; mais ce jugement des hommes est lui-même un abus déplorable dans la morale”, Pensées, no. 207). The writing of fragments that use the example of the Spanish conquest according to different arguments underscores the necessity, according to the aspects envisaged, sometimes of adopting a relativist point of view, at others of pronouncing a judgment on universal principles.

13We can underscore the same adaptation of the discontinuous to a key theme of the work: happiness. Montesquieu evoked his own capacity for happiness in a “self-portrait” thought (Pensées, no. 213), of a normative and exemplary character, the relationship of which with the form of the maxim has been underscored. Beside this very personal experience of the felicity and pleasure of existing, the general reflections on happiness show how the project of a constructed work seems to take shape (Pensées, no. 30, 1661, 1662, 1675) whereas the fragment allows the reflection to restart and be modified. Montesquieu first notes: “Happiness or unhappiness consists in a certain disposition of organs, favorable or unfavorable […]” (“Le bonheur ou le malheur consistent dans une certaine disposition d’organes, favorable ou défavorable […]”, Pensées, no. 30). He subsequently nuances: “Although I have said of happiness based on the machine [body], I am not for that saying that our soul cannot also contribute to our happiness” (“Quoi que j’aie dit du bonheur fondé sur la machine, je ne dis pas pour cela que notre âme ne puisse aussi contribuer à notre bonheur […]”, Pensées, no. 58). The importance of the quest for happiness in moral discourse requires the definition of an art of living, the return to concern for oneself, to writing as exercise, of the philosophers of Antiquity. It is no doubt as much to Marcus Aurelius as to La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère that we should perhaps compare Montesquieu, who clearly expressed his admiration for the work of the emperor philosopher. The search for the Good, indissociable from the search for well-being, cannot be the object of a fixed and dogmatic expression: it supposes the essay and exercise of a thought of which writing is the means and the trace. If la morale is defined as a requirement formulated on the basis of ideas of nature and justice, it does not dissociate itself from the quest for inner equilibrium associated with that of social harmony, which supposes adaptability and experimentation.


Corrado Rosso, “Montesquieu e l’arte della massima”, Saggi e ricerche di letteratura francese, vol. IV, Pisa, 1965

La “Maxime”: saggi per una tipologia critica, Naples, 1968.

Montesquieu moraliste: des lois au bonheur, Saint-Médard-en-Jalles (Bordeaux): Ducros, 1971.

Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977, p. 67-81.

Tzvetan Todorov, “Les morales de la conquête”, Diogène international 125 (1984), p. 93-107.

Georges Benrekassa, Montesquieu: la liberté et l’histoire, Paris: Livre de Poche, 1987.

Céline Spector, Montesquieu: les “Lettres persanes”, Paris: PUF,  “Philosophies”, 1997.

Bertrand Binoche, Introduction à “De l’Esprit des lois” de Montesquieu, Paris: PUF, 1998, p. 162-184.

Catherine Larrère, “Le stoïcisme dans les œuvres de jeunesse de Montesquieu”, in Montesquieu: les années de formation (1689-1720), Cahiers Montesquieu 5, Catherine Larrère ed., 1999, p. 163-183.

Carole Dornier, “Les Pensées de Montesquieu et la tradition des formes brèves”, Poétique de la pensée: études sur l’âge classique et le siècle philosophique. En hommage à Jean Dagen, Béatrice Guion et alii dir., Champion, 2006, p. 363-377.

—, “Les Pensées de Montesquieu comme espace de constitution de l’auteur”, Studi Francesi 161 (2010), p. 304-314.

Bibliographical reference

Dornier Carole , « Moral (Morals), Moralists », dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :